Waikato River History

The Waikato River is New Zealand’s longest river at 425 kilometres in length. It drains Lake Taupo, New Zealand’s largest lake, creates the Huka Falls and then flows northwest, through the Waikato Plains. It empties into the Tasman Sea south of Auckland, at Port Waikato. The present course of the river was largely formed by a volcanic eruption approximately 1800 years ago. The large outflow of volcanic debris blocked the old channel to the Firth of Thames at Lake Karapiro and forced the river to turn west and then north. The remains of the old river path can be clearly seen at Hinuera where the cliffs mark the ancient river edges. The river’s main tributary is the Waipa River, which joins the Waikato at Ngaruawahia, 21 kilometres north of the city.

The name Waikato comes from the Māori language and translates as flowing water. The Waikato River has spiritual meaning for various local Māori tribes, including Tainui, who regard it as a source of their mana, or pride. The seat of the Maori King is at the Marae of Turangawaewae on the banks of the river at Ngaruawahia. For many years Tainui sought to re-establish its links to the river after the New Zealand Wars and the subsequent confiscations of the 1860s. A settlement was finally reached in August 2008 and the tribe now has joint management of the river along with the Waikato Regional Council.

As well as being a water and recreation resource, the river was historically a critical communications and transport link for the communities along it. The Waikato River in Hamilton is frequently used by rowers, kayakers and powered pleasure craft. Water-skiers and jet skis have zones outside the city limits where they can be used.

Due to the river’s geography, it is ideal for generating electricity and as much as 13% of the country’s power needs are generated by the rivers network of dams. There are eight dams and nine hydroelectric power stations on the river.

The Waikato River and its hydro lakes are home to at least 19 types of native fish and 10 types of introduced fish. The introduced species include rainbow and brown trout providing what has been called “the finest fly-fishing in the world”. Other introduced species, like the carp and mosquitofish, have become major pests.